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Syracuse’s special forces (teams): Always there when needed, ready to deliver

Syracuse has taken a new path back to relevancy with its offensive approach. However, the Orange is old school in one very special way.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t a cool motto or a hashtag for the group, and it’s not something most fans look forward to watching on a game-to-game basis. But for the Syracuse Orange in 2018, there might not be any more important unit than its special teams.

It’s not as flashy as Syracuse’s 50-points-or-more offense, which at its peak doesn’t allow for opposing defenses to make substitutions or for TV broadcasts to run “instant replays.” Sure, the sometimes maddening three-and-outs, or hurry-up-and-wait-at-the-line-of-scrimmage mentality can be frustrating. Yet, Dino Babers is known for offense and thus, #OrangeIsTheNewFast (#OITNF).

Even when it comes to the coach’s now famous speeches, special teams hasn’t exactly been an ostentatious component.

Remember the first public address for his opening presser? Babers asked everyone in attendance to close their eyes and visualize a packed Carrier Dome, with a no-huddle offense, a game built for speed and “a special teams that has been well-coached.”


Maybe it should go by #OrangeSpecialForces? Because the truth is, Syracuse’s special teams —punting, kicking, coverage—has come through in all facets all season. It’s the fourth most efficient unit in the country. Further, using Footballoutsiders’ stats, Syracuse has the top S&P+ for special teams. Babers himself said during his weekly ACC press conference on Wednesday that the unit is doing better than anticipated.

The whole team is, in one form or another, exceeding expectations. Syracuse is not only 6-2 and ranked, it’s set for a bowl game. The initial college football playoff poll included Syracuse’s name. These are no small feats for a once moribund program. So if it feels like Orange football is “back,” well that certainly has a lot to do with assistant Justin Lustig’s special teams. A group that, for most of the 1990s, was one of the best in the country on an annual basis. Back when Syracuse’s being ranked was something that just happened.

Names like Pat O’Neil, Kirby Dar Dar, Nate Trout, and Quinton Spotwood helped keep those Syracuse teams in the conversation. There was all conference talent in punting, kicking and returning. Frank Beamer at the time was known for blocking kicks at Virginia Tech, however, there were years when SU would get its fair share of field goal attempts or punts. It’s wasn’t a forgotten or over-looked lot, but it’s one that got the pub after the McNabbs of the world.

This is before some in Syracuse felt the need to do away with a special teams coach altogether. A questionable move that never seemed to deliver results.

Lustig’s group isn’t getting to the football in the way the 90s team did, but it’s made a name for itself in other ways. One that might get mentioned after the Dungeys or (Tommy) DeVitos. Still, it will get its mentions. And no name within the special teams is probably more said and mispronounced than redshirt freshman Andre Szmyt. A player who didn’t even play football until about two years ago. A player who showed up on campus as a “preferred walk-on.” Someone who was figured to be lost in the shuffle, one of three people attempting to win the starting job.

Welp, since earning that role, Szmyt has twice been chosen as a “Lou Groza Award” star or the week. He’s won ACC accolades and high praise from fans and pundits. Of course none of this was expected from a walk-on with a bio that didn’t read as “future football player.”

Career Overview: Reserve placekicker who heads into fall camp in a three-way battle with Nolan Cooney and Cory Smigel to serve as Syracuse’s kickoff specialist … Drilled a 35-yard field goal in the 2018 Spring Preview … Joined the Orange at the start of 2017 fall camp.

A spring game stat? Now, Szmyt has made 21 out of 23 field-goal attempts, tying him for the most makes in all of FBS. He’s a perfect 14 of 14 from inside the 40 yard line, meaning entering the red zone practically guarantees points. The former high school soccer player has nailed all 40 of his extra points and has an FBS-leading 103 total points. Syracuse still has four regular season games left and Szmyt has already racked up the most points for a kicker in program history.

Just last week, in possibly the most crucial home game SU has had in years, Szmyt hit three big field goals, connecting from 29, 45 and 41 yards out. Yes, the Orange won by 10 points, but there is little doubt that score would have been different if Syracuse had a less accurate kicker.

With Szmyt as a safety value, Syracuse’s high-powered offense just needs to make opposing defenses bend. Allow for the Orange to get into Szmyt’s range and then, at the least, it should be a three-spot on the board. Worst case.

Ranked teams, ones with rising profiles, need a blast-it-home kicker. Not Mr. Flash but certainly Mr. Reliable. Top-25 Syracuse has that and then some.

Maybe #OrangeKickIsGood?

For those times when the offense can’t get into enemy territory, those three-and-nothings, there’s another fail-safe waiting.

Middle Tennessee v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Sterling Hofrichter is an NFL punter disguised as a college player. His 2018 performance hasn’t been a surprise, it’s been waited on. The (redshirt) junior was named to the All-ACC preseason first team by national publications Athlon Sports and Phil Steele College Football. So far in ‘18, through eight games, Riley Dixon Part II is averaging just under 46 yards per punt, the highest of his career so far, and a stat that doesn’t account for hang time and position.


In Syracuse’s comeback against North Carolina two weeks back, Hofrichter boomed beauts, accounting for 361 yards. In fact, a couple of the punts pushed the Tar Heels well back into their own territory, erasing what could have been solid field position for their ensuing drive. That was a game in which the Orange offense was stuck in the mud, meaning Hofrichter was there to give it a push out. The Hof’s biggest plays aren’t highlight worthy, but they help Syracuse get highlights.

Oh, there have been plenty of those plays, where the special teams has made special moments SportsCenter style.

Returner Sean Riley electrified the Dome crowd as he danced around Connecticut defenders like Super Mario after collecting a star back in September.

What about that the second half in Death Valley against Clemson, when senior Jamal Custis nearly saved the day by scooping up a muffed punt return? That recovery led to an Eric Dungey rushing touchdown, and gave faith to the Orange faithful who had likely lost hope until that heads-up play by Custis.

The entire special teams unit just rolls along. It’s even survived losing long-time long snapper Matt Keller. The senior suffered a season-ending injury in the loss to the Tigers. That meant freshman walk-on Aaron Bolinsky had to step up and handle the long-snapping duties. The fact that some might have forgotten about that key change is validation for Bolinsky. It’s also further proof that special teams at Syracuse has become special again.

Lustig and Babers have put in work and it’s showing, in all phases. It carries weight, especially so during a time when nostalgia is running high. Right now, a lot of fans start conversations with “the last time Syracuse.” We’re in a new, almost old world.

Interesting that there has been this resurgence with Syracuse in offense, defense and with its kicking, punting and return units. All are key to finishing 2018 on a positive note.

As for hashtags? There is probably plenty of time to find the right one for the group, if you’re into that type of thing. But what’s really important is that this special teams unit appears to be a perfect retro, old-school fit for a new-look Orange.